Deland McCullough II turned down the University of Southern California.
He rejected Kentucky, dismissed Indiana and refused Rutgers.
Practically drowning in big-time, Division I football scholarship offers, McCullough II said, “no, thanks,” to every single pigskin powerhouse that pursued him.
Instead, he chose Miami University, tapping into a decade-old dream and continuing the legacy of his father, Deland McCullough, and his grandfather, Sherman Smith — both of whom played collegiate football in Oxford.
“You’ve got to deal with the glamor of USC and all those schools like that,” McCullough II said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, [this is great].’ But once I sat down and really thought about it, Miami was the best for me.
The 19-year-old McCullough II had been thinking about it for more than a decade.
While his mom is a Tiffin University graduate, his dad used to bring him to RedHawks’ football games, starting before McCullough II can even remember. When he was eight, his dad signed him up for a Miami kids football camp.
“After that, I was pretty set,” McCullough II said, grinning. “I always wanted to go here. My dad always talked about how nice it is. But, I don’t think it really hit me that I really wanted to go here until my junior year [of high school], when I really started getting into the recruiting process.”
Miami was the only official recruiting visit he took.
“Yeah, we were nervous that we weren’t going to get him, but at least we knew he had some people at home who had come here and had unbelievable experiences,” Miami head coach Chuck Martin said. “That’s better than I can do in recruiting. His dad and his granddad can say, ‘I went there, and not only did I love being a student-athlete at Miami, but it set me up for having a lot of success.’ That gave us a better chance. Otherwise, we probably had no chance.”
Once McCullough II picked his school, he decided to speed up the process of getting there, finishing high school half a year early and arriving on campus in January for the current semester.
“To be honest, it was more my dad’s idea than mine,” McCullough II said. “But, I’m older for my grade. I’m like a year older than everyone, so I kind of felt that, too, and kind of wanted to get out.”
He doubled up on his high school course load, taking extra classes throughout the summer and fall to fulfill the necessary graduation requirements.
“During the school year, I did two English classes,” McCullough II said. “That was awful because we did the same things at the same time. I couldn’t write about the same thing for two different classes, so try doing two research papers on the same thing at the same time. It was ridiculous.”
He won’t go to his senior prom, and he won’t walk with his high school classmates at graduation in May.
“I’m alright with it,” McCullough II said.
The switch from high school to college is difficult, especially for McCullough who arrived half way through the year. He had to use some tricks to get around campus.
“I remember, the first week, walking around with my phone in my hand, Google Maps going on,” McCullough II said. “I didn’t know where I was going ’cause no one told me where I was going. They just told me I was going here, so I had to look it up.
“My Google Maps were pretty accurate. The only time I got lost, I was rushing to get to class, walked into the wrong building and couldn’t find the class number to save my life. Then, I realized I was in the wrong building, and I was like 10 minutes late to Microbiology 131. Now, I’ve completely just blanked on what the buildings are called. I just know where to go, now.”
In place of prom and small classes of less than 30 students, he’s majoring in sociology and already taking 100-person lecture classes.
“For me, it’s always been what my life is going to be like past football,” McCullough II said. “I knew academics [at Miami] are very strong, and football-wise, I knew I’d have a great opportunity to play here, while I’m young. I decided this is what’s best for me other than going to a big school and sitting for two or three years.”
While it’s still early, it sounds as though he will get the opportunity to play soon. He’s still nursing a torn meniscus suffered in the fall, but is on the verge of being fully cleared. Martin said McCullough II’s role for the upcoming season will be determined in fall camp.
For the last two months, McCullough II has participated in the team’s spring football workouts as a safety. He added 16 pounds of muscle within the first four weeks.
“I know from talking to his dad, too, that he believes [McCullough II] hasn’t even really hit his spurt, yet,” Martin said. “His dad says, ‘Hey, I was the same way. I went to college, and I was good, but I kind of got there on athleticism. I hadn’t really filled out yet.’”
Hitting a growth spurt in college did wonders for Deland Sr., who’s now the running backs coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. He ranks ninth in Mid-American Conference history in rushing yards and went on to play in both the National Football League and the Canadian Football League.
McCullough II’s grandfather, Sherman Smith, also had a distinguished Miami career, quarterbacking the then-Redskins to a 33-1-1 record and three MAC Championships in his final three seasons. He, too, played and coached in the NFL.
The two, who didn’t realize they were related until 2017, were featured in ESPN The Magazine and E:60 for the story of how Deland Sr. found out Smith is his biological father. Both are in the Miami Athletics Hall of Fame.
For some, following in the footsteps of greatness can lead to a lot of pressure. For McCullough II, he doesn’t mind.
“I don’t feel the pressure,” McCullough II said. “There might be pressure, but I really don’t feel it. I’m just out here, trying to do my own thing. I really don’t think about it a whole bunch, that my dad and grandpa are Miami legends. I’m going to play how I play. But, of course I’m going to try to keep on the legacy.”
As for his future, McCullough II doesn’t let his mind go there often. He said he’d love to play professional football, but considers that Plan B.
“Graduating is my No. 1 goal,” McCullough II said.
He doesn’t see himself being profiled in any ESPN documentary.
Right now, McCullough II could’ve been eating in a high school cafeteria with all his buddies or practicing at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as a USC Trojan.
But, he chose Miami. He tells his friends back home that it’s, “the Harvard of the Midwest,” and he’s proud of it.
He’s been dreaming about, and training for, his current life in Oxford for a long time.